Today, we hear from Darren Robbins who heads up social media for Superior St - one of Chicago’s most well known rehearsal spaces. Robbins takes us back to 1988, the year his band first played Metro and the year he met the late Jim Ellison of Material Issue (who by the way headlined Metro for the first time on this day in 1988. Full circle, I know).
It was a random Wednesday night in Chicago, the year was 1988, and I had just released my first solo album, Darren Robbins Steals Your Girlfriend. I was just a kid from Michigan chasing his rock & roll dreams in the Windy City. In exchange for sleeping on the floor in the offices of Like Records, the local indie label that was releasing my record, I would man the phones by day, drumming up interest in my CD and begging for gigs at any local club with a stage. Naturally, the one club in town I wanted to play most of all was the Cabaret Metro. This was, after all, the same club my friends in Michigan and I had thought nothing of driving six hours round trip to see Jesus & Mary Chain play for twenty minutes, among other legendary shows.
So I sent in my CD/promo kit and, after bugging Joe Shanahan’s assistant on an almost daily basis for a couple months, I finally got Joe on the phone. His first words to me were, “Wow, you’re persistent. You remind me of Jim Ellison.” He then told me he dug the CD and that he would be happy to give us a show. Mind you, it was a mid-week “Rock Against Depression” show that was the bottom rung of the Metro ladder, but, to me, it was akin to headlining Lollapalooza. Sure, I’d already played big shows with the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Cheap Trick, but there was something about stepping onto the Metro stage that made this a “bucket list” gig. So many of my heroes had spilled their blood, sweat and tears on this very same stage. To be able to do so myself seemed like a rock & roll rite of passage.
Being in absolute awe of my surroundings, I remember very little of my band’s actual performance, but I do remember how great the Metro staff were, going so far as to help us load-in when we pulled up for soundcheck. Seriously, we had no sooner stepped out of the van when three guys who we hoped were employees of the Metro began unloading our gear.
It gets better.
Once inside, I discovered that we had our own dressing room and an icy tub of free beer waiting for us. I can still remember thinking to myself that I could very easily get used to this.
(Sadly, this sort of treatment would be the exception and not the rule as there would be no friendly staffers waiting a week later to haul our gear up what felt like ten flights of stairs at the freakin’ Avalon.)
After we rocked the Metro and retired to our dressing room, who should come knocking but Material issue’s Jim Ellison himself. Turns out he and I had actually spoken once on the phone a few weeks prior, as he handled bookings for another local bar (Batteries Not Included, if I remember correctly) and he’d given us a date for next month. My first recollection of him was that he was either really skinny, or really tall, or both, and had a mouth that never stopped.
For some odd reason, he treated me like a long-lost best friend that night. I have no idea why, as he certainly had nothing to gain from me. Over the next year, he’d call me a number of times and see if my band wanted to open for his at this club or that. All the while, I could never quite figure out why he seemed to be going out of his way to help me when very few people at the time had anything nice to say about him.
As if that weren’t enough, minutes later I ran into a girl I’d gone to high school with back in Michigan. She introduced me to her friend Jimmy, who was in a band called Smashing Pumpkins. I’d never heard of them and could barely make out what he was saying, as he was a bit sloshed and having a hard time forming words. At one point in the conversation, he mentioned that Shanahan was managing them and that they’d be opening for The Cure in a couple weeks. Upon hearing this, my guitarist literally spewed a mouthful of beer, which provided the necessary distraction for me to excuse myself from this seemingly tall story.
Sure enough, a week later, I began seeing posters all over town advertising The Cure show. At the bottom, it read, “with special guests Smashing Pumpkins”.
For a stretch of six months or so, it seemed the Pumpkins opened every show I attended at Metro. It was at this point that I realized just how much power a good manager wielded in Chicago, especially if said manager also runs the coolest rock venue in the entire midwest.
While I never found the bigtime myself, I did get to know Joe, Jim, Jimmy & the rest of the Pumpkins and watch their transformation from generic goth band into a lacerating alt. rock juggernaut that would go on to become one of the most important bands of their generation.
I have Joe to thank for allowing me into this world, for I do not think I would have gained entry any other way. That Metro remains such a vital part of the live music scene in Chicago - and, let’s face it, the world - is a testament to Joe Shanahan and his crack staff. While the faces may have changed over the years, the quality and dedication has never faltered. Thankfully, this victory lap for the Metro is well-deserved and is, by no means, a sign of slowing down.
Happy 30th Metro, may there be many more!